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Virginia legislature votes to abolish death penalty

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Both the Virginia House of Delegates and the Senate have passed bills that would abolish the death penalty in the commonwealth. Gov. Ralph Northam has stated his support, making it highly likely that Virginia will become the first Southern state to outlaw capital punishment. According to Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, the commonwealth has executed 1,390 men and women since 1608, more than any other state.

Virginia’s Catholic bishops, Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge and Richmond Bishop Barry C. Knestout, welcomed the vote in a Feb. 5 statement. “We offer — and affirm the utmost need for — prayerful support for the families of victims of horrific crimes. We also affirm, with clarity and conviction, the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘[T]he death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.’

“As Pope Francis, his predecessors and the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently noted, we have other ways to provide punishment and protect society, without resorting to executions,” the statement continued. “We too have been consistently clear in our stand on the abolition legislation this year and on similar legislation in years past, and in our direct interventions before executions occurred in Virginia and at the federal level.”

Many Catholics in the diocese have prayed for years for an end to the death penalty. Often, at the time an execution was performed, Catholics would gather at prayer vigils around the area. Bob More was involved with organizing four such vigils at St. John Neumann Church in Reston.

“They were very moving,” he said. “We would pray for the victim and their family and the accused and his or her family and the people that were carrying out the death sentence, and just that hearts would be changed all around, that our leaders would come to recognize the evil of state killing.

“It’s an incredible moment for Virginia,” said More. “To finally uphold the dignity of every person including those who offended against society in a serious way, and to recognize the death penalty has not been applied in a fair and defensible manner, and that people need an opportunity for rehabilitation and repentance.”

Parishioners of St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax also have hosted prayer vigils at their historic chapel. Christina Benedi, the parish outreach ministry coordinator, was glad to hear the news. “As Christians, we value the sanctity of life from conception to natural death, and abolishing the death penalty supports this,” she said. “There are alternative punishments for heinous crimes, and hopefully, there will be additional future funding for increased mental health programs and treatments.”

Shari Zamarra, head of the Consistent Ethic of Life Team at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington, wished the General Assembly would do more to protect the taking of life. “I’m just getting in touch with my representative and sending them a card with Catholic social teaching on it, because it’s very frustrating to have them pass laws with more access to abortion and at the same time abolition of the death penalty,” she said. “They’re not honoring the dignity of human life — they are in one case, but not in another.”

There are still a few more things must happen before capital punishment is banned. “The final step will be reconciling any differences between the House and Senate bills and sending a final version for Governor Ralph Northam to sign into law later in the spring,” said VADP in a press release.

Statement by Bishop Burbidge and Bishop Knestout on Passage of Death Penalty Abolition Legislation 

We welcome today’s vote by the Virginia House of Delegates to abolish the death penalty, as well as the vote by the Virginia Senate to do so earlier this week.

We offer – and affirm the utmost need for – prayerful support for the families of victims of horrific crimes. We also affirm, with clarity and conviction, the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: ‘[T]he death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’ (no. 2267).

The same paragraph of the Catechism also notes, ‘[T]here is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.’ We see this increasing awareness at work in the many voices that joined together to advocate for this legislation, and ultimately in the votes by the Senate and House in favor of ending the death penalty in Virginia, which has executed more people than any other state.

In the words of Pope Francis, ‘Indeed, nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice’ (Remarks to 6th World Congress against the Death Penalty, June 2016). As Pope Francis, his predecessors and the U.S. Catholic bishops have consistently noted, we have other ways to provide punishment and protect society, without resorting to executions. We too have been consistently clear in our stand on the abolition legislation this year and on similar legislation in years past, and in our direct interventions before executions occurred in Virginia and at the federal level.

 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

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